Big Dreams in small packages

I always used to think that the short story is a miniaturist’s medium, that authors of short fiction seek to paint exquisite cameos that at best reveal some larger truth through the depiction of a tiny detail.

Taking on the task of portraying the our great big world, bringing to life success and failure, youth and age, wealth and poverty – that’s the job for the novel, and not just any novel: the “social novel.” Toronto writer Rebecca Rosenblum has kicked that handy little dichotomy to the curb in her collection The Big Dream. Call it, perhaps, the “social short story collection.”

The 13 stories in the collection are set in and around the offices of Dream Inc., publisher of a series of magazines (Dream Sailing, Dream Wedding, Dream Baby, etc) offering, like most such magazines, a dream of a perfect life. The stories range in tone from satire to elegy, and cover virtually the entire operation, from the lowly customer service representatives in the call centre to the company’s CEO and the CFO of the American parent company.

A few observations that struck me in reading the stories:

It’s interesting that she sets her stories in a magazine, that go-to destination for escapist chicklit. How many times have we seen a magazine as a glamourous setting where no actual work seems to be done, but where our heroine triumphs through spunk and a pure heart? Rosenblum’s magazine could not be less like those settings. For one, it’s not in a high-style modernist skyscraper, nor in a restored heritage building in a funky arts district. It’s located in an industrial park in Mississauga near Pearson Airport. For another, more significant thing, we don’t see people doing glamourous work. Her story focuses on the people who work in the call centre, deal with tech support, overseeing the hiring and firing or spend all day, on a good day, tweaking a new logo.

There are many individual stories in The Big Dream, but they’re also all part of the collective story of the collapse of the company, and a big part of the economy. Early on we get a sense of the rot affecting the company, when we encounter a tech support worker on temporary contract who is suffering a tooth ache while he waits impatiently to go on full time and get his dental benefits. In the same story, the tech support crew needs to take action because the building is infected with mice who are gnawing away on cables. It’s a very clever way of symbolizing the rot and decay that’s eating away at the whole company.

In later stories the problems become more explicit. One focuses on the one remaining member of the company’s research department to survive a round a layoffs. Two others deal with executives trying to break the news to employees that they’re contracting out jobs to a firm in India.

Characters in the stories live their lives around their work, coming home exhausted to deal with a dying mother or a marriage in crisis or engaging in a workplace affair that is doomed to go nowhere.

In talking about how true to life the stories are, I’m not doing a great job of conveying their spirit. Rosenblum can be very funny. There’s a lot of funny stuff in here about the idea of having catered muffins at meetings. I won’t spoil it, but it captures a bit of the absurdity of workplace culture and rituals.

Here’s one example of the collection’s comedy. Mariska and Grig, a pair of Slavic-immigrant roommates – one a waitress and the other a Dream Inc. customer service representative – are talking about the food and weight obsessions of Canadian middle-class office women.

“‘The women who come to the restaurant… they worry about skinny. They don’t eat bread, they don’t eat croutons, talk talk talk about the yoga. They put their mats under the table to trip me.’

‘Mats?’ Grig asks, trailing her to the front door.

Mariska rolls her eyes; she was like a sister he couldn’t yell at or shove. ‘Skinny rich bitches are lazy, but still they must exercise, so they do exercises lying down. Is like exercise nap, to get stretchy. For princesses, for rich girls.’”

Sure it’s funny, but like a lot of the humour in the book it also highlights the comedy, sometimes tragicomedy, of daily working life.

In an interview with the poet Ariel Gordon in the Winnipeg Free Press, Rosenblum described her rationale for getting away from what she calls “The confectionary idea that I see in a lot of fiction, that life happens after six and on weekends.”

This focus on real life as separate from work, she said, “is not true to me, nor to anyone who has ever faced unemployment in a bad economy, or overheard a colleague crying in the bathroom, or had a really excellent night at the holiday party. It all matters, it’s all real life — I wanted to show that.”

The Big Dream is real life. For readers who want fiction that engages with the world we live in, Rosenblum’s work matters.

And now, a word from our sponsor

Pre-Christmas book-buying season is nearly over, and the last flurry of sales for the releases of 2011 will start on Boxing Day, when people begin redeeming gift cards. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll present my own little case study in the selling of one particular book: my novel Dadolescence.

As of December 21, Dadolescence was still ranked in the Hot 200 (thousand) on Amazon.ca, more than three months after its release. This kind of staying power in the literary marketplace is only made possible by a determined effort, not just from the marketing team at Turnstone Press, but from the author as well. So for anybody else who dreams of literary success, I present here a breakdown of my efforts over the past year to get Dadolescence into the hands of readers. Follow in my footsteps and you too might see your book reach the lofty pinnacle of 152,635th spot on Amazon’s charts. At least, you can dream.

January – August

Ask several writers to read book and, if they like it, blurb it. Rejoice when comedian/television comedy writer Al Rae reads it and likes it.
Develop website and blog.
Develop lengthy invitation list for book launch.
Send story pitch to Winnipeg Free Press, Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, various other media.
Record attempt at humourous book trailer inspired by Gary Shteyngart’s book trailer for Super Sad True Love Story, which fails due to lack of cameo appearances by James Franco and Jay McInerney.
Learn that Chapters Indigo isn’t making a chain-wide order for its fiction section, but will stock the book in its “Local Interest – Winnipeg” section in various stores. (This, by the way, sucks.)
Develop set of book club questions.

September
Do interview with Free Press.
Write guest blog entry for U.S. website Fathermucker, operated by Greg Olear, author of another comic novel about a stay-at-home father (Amazon rank: 64,842).
Launch book at McNally Robinson (sell 25 copies at launch, propelling book onto Free Press bestseller list for two weeks).
Send rave review from Free Press to every acquaintance with a computer.
Begin obsessive daily search through Globe and Mail and National Post for review with national audience.
Notice that book is mentioned in National Post books column as an example of the many little-known books by obscure writers that Giller Prize judges must plough through.
Console self that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Accept that a comic first novel was never likely to be shortlisted for the Giller.

October
Do reading at Manitoba Arts Network Showcase in Winkler (sell seven copies).
Do first bookstore signing: Chapters St. Vital (sell two copies).
Do interview with CBC Winnipeg Weekend Morning show.
Assemble invitation lists for book tour to Calgary and Edmonton.
Contact old friends with CBC Alberta, play old-friend card.
Write blog entry for Canadian Bookshelf website.
Write New Author, Old Book submission for National Post, discussing a book that inspired me when starting out.
Submit humour piece on Franklin Expedition to The Walrus Magazine, hoping national magazine piece might provide slight exposure for novel.
Research book blogs and parenting blogs. Pitch Dadolescence to them.
Pitch book to the Gauntlet, University of Calgary student newspaper, playing former-editor card.
Accept that a comic first novel was never likely to be shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award.
Visit wife’s office to sign copies for co-workers (sell three copies).

November
Book tour!
Do interviews with Calgary and Edmonton CBC drive-home shows.
Read at Alberta launch at Pages Kensington bookstore (sell 20 copies, enough to make the Calgary Herald bestseller list).
Read at Audrey’s Books on a pedestrian-free Jasper Avenue in Edmonton (sell two copies).
Do two Chapters signings in Calgary and one in Edmonton (sell eight copies).
Drop by open mike night at Whyte Avenue bar to read (drink infinite times as many beers as copies of book sold. Infinite times three, actually).
Review, mostly favourable, appears on Pickle Me This book blog.
Do book signing at the Forks in Winnipeg (sell three copies).
Do book signing at Chapters Polo Park (sell one copy, but make valuable connection with Rotary Club book club, leading to possible invitation in 2012).
Do book signing at McNally Robinson (sell seven copies).
Canadian Bookshelf blog entry appears on site.
Canadian Bookshelf features novel on front page in list of books about fatherhood.
National Post runs New Author, Old Book submission.
Pitch to more book blogs, some of which are too refined to read anything that isn’t on a Giller or GG shortlist (sorry, venting).

December
Gauntlet runs review, demonstrating ineffectiveness of former-editor card by trashing the book (google the goddam link yourself).
Do reading at Manitoba Association of Playwrights Holiday fundraiser.
Do reading from Franklin Expedition piece at Manitoba Writers’ Guild/Writers’ Union of Canada party.
Do reading at Neighbourhood Bookstore and Cafe in Wolseley (sell three copies).
Submit recommendation to Advent Book Blog for Wayne Tefs’s novel Bandit, allowing for a mention of Dadolescence on the site.
The Winnipeg Review runs lukewarm review, by writer who doesn’t understand concept of humourous juxtaposition of physical comedy with formal, analytical language (sorry, venting).
Notice large number of unsold copies languishing in the Local Interest – Winnipeg sections of Chapters St. Vital and Polo Park locations.
Tell self that the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in April is the book’s best shot at a sales-boosting award.
Inoculate self against disappointment by predicting that Will Ferguson will probably win the goddam Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, again.

Time to Cowgirl up

I have a review of three short story collections coming up in Prairie Fire Magazine and I probably shouldn’t scoop the journal that sent me the three review copies, but I can’t resist putting up a recommendation for my favourite of the three, and perhaps the most enjoyable short story collection I’ve ever read: David Whitton’s first book, The Reverse Cowgirl.

Calling to mind Zsuzsi Gartner, whom I’ve discussed before on this blog and who selected one of Whitton’s stories for her recent speculative-fiction anthology Darwin\’s Bastards, Whitton mixes elements of fantasy and speculative or science fiction with both satire and straight-ahead storytelling.

But where these fantasy elements sometimes seem like dramatic dead-ends in Gartner’s work, in Whitton’s collection they enrich the stories. There are stories here about a woman who is struck by a falling gargoyle and suffers a brain injury that makes her clairvoyant, a future world dominated by an Odin-worshipping corporation-state that may just be a weaponized Lego Inc., and the disastrous space-time-continuum effects of an accident at the Large Hadron Collider. In all of them, the otherworldly material is essential to the story and helps to advance characters and narratives. Other stories contain no sci-fi or fantasy elements, but feature Whitton’s slightly skewed take on everyday life, with absurd but believable dramas taking place within a subculture of bus driver groupies or in a beauty school that has taken on a manly concrete worker as a new student.

As much as I enjoyed the imagination that created these stories, it’s Whitton’s use of language that elevates The Reverse Cowgirl.

There are many jumps into characters’ minds that convey attitudes or impressions succinctly and memorably: “He possessed happiness, he really did – the problem was he couldn’t access it”, “It was around this time, I recall, that I was crying often and without provocation: in the middle of football games, or during sitcoms, or, once in the middle of a denture cream commercial that had struck me as especially poignant”, “He looked impossibly delicate, like a ceramic figurine. The Royal Doulton version of a drunk insurance man.”

I love how he makes use of specialized vocabulary, creating a kind of spoken-word poetry or stand-up comedy out of technical terms. Here, for example is an inattentive husband who hasn’t noticed that his wife is having an affair because he’s been too focused on his concrete business, especially on a new concrete sealant that “Protects against alkali damage, capillary seepage, and dusting. Protects against scaling and spalling.”

When he is informed his of his wife’s betrayal, he collapses to the recently sealed floor of his garage and: “It gave him not the smallest satisfaction now to see that there were no signs of dusting, scaling, or spalling.”

If you aren’t impressed by how Whitton uses language to swoop into the husband’s head and then back out in this story (Bus Bunnies), then we just don’t have much to talk about aesthetically speaking.

There are things you won’t find in Whitton’s writing: reflections on loss and memory; gardening as a metaphor; narratives in which nothing much happens until the narrator is struck by a precious little epiphany; story after story with the same slightly modified and probably semi-autobiographical culture-worker protagonist. All of those things that may have encouraged you (okay, me) to think that the short story in general and the Canadian short story in particular had become an etiolated branch of the tree of literature: Whitton has chosen to leave them out of his very impressive debut.

Anna K in reverse?

Have you ever read yet another story about family dysfunction, abuse and addiction and thought that maybe Tolstoy got things backwards in his famous opening to Anna Karenina?

You wonder, should it not instead be: “All unhappy families are alike; each happy family is happy in its own way”?

Perhaps happiness gets a bad rap in literature because we think of it as a kind of innocent bliss. Only people who have never sipped from the bitter cup of life can be happy. And the lack of life experience that implies means they aren’t really fit subjects for literature. But perhaps happiness is something else: perseverance, hope, compassion, forgiveness, the strength to work through sadness and disappointment.

That brings me to a deceptively simple story about a happy family: A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen. Sorensen is an English professor at the Canadian Mennonite University, in Winnipeg, and her first novel is a year in the life of an English professor at a small, unnamed Winnipeg college (which sounds more like the University of Winnipeg than CMU). The author  teaches at a religious college. Her fictional alter ego is a church-goer, though she seems to teach at a secular college.

On the surface, then, this seems like a story inspired very much by real life. And no doubt the elements of academic satire are inspired by Sorensen’s work in academe.

There are some fine moments where she mocks academic pretensions and fashions, especially when her protagonist, Janey Erlicksen, learns that a colleague is organizing a conference on decadence.

“I’m afraid that the first time I heard about this conference I laughed in front of Beatrice, and have regretted it ever since. She is one of the grimmest women I have ever met. Always dressed in grey. Always in a suit, even in this academic downtime. The idea that Beatrice is acquainted at all with depravity, even in abstract form, is one of the funniest things I have encountered.

Janey goes on to describe how she and her husband Hector have imagined crashing the decadence conference by staging performances designed to lampoon the whole thing.

“My favourite so far is that we will perform scenes from Oscar Wilde’s Salome while completely encased in snowmobile suits.”

Janey is a square peg in the round hole of academic life. She’s a literature prof because she loves books, but she has little interest in Lacan, Derrida, and all those other gods of critical theory. Nor can she dedicate herself single-mindedly to climbing up the academic ladder by the usual means of working a topic to death and schmoozing around at conferences.

The novel, though, is much more than an academic satire (though it does pay homage to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim towards the end). Janey, we learn, usually goes through a bit of depression in April, T.S. Eliot’s cruellest month. And though her April blues don’t arrive on cue, she does find herself going through a difficult enough time that she seeks counselling from the minister at her church.

“I examine my life and wonder what is the matter. All I can see is what ought to be health and happiness. Lovely boy, handsome and caring husband, blah blah blah.”

The problem seems to be a spiritual one. Janey is a woman who wants to be a believer, yet she is living in an environment of radical doubt, stewing in a sauce of critical theory. Janey shows us a poem she wrote in grad school: Jacques Derrida Takes the Chicken Out for Supper, in which she asks the literary theorist: “When you go for walks, does a tree exist? Or has the word created the tree?”

“Words are less powerful than the
Oppression of spirit ladled over
Everything
By men like you (not you?)
Well, perhaps not spirit, but my spirit.”

Is this the origin of her depression? Has this all-powerful force of doubt battered her spirit, leading to her need to go through months of regular sessions with her friend and minister?

Meanwhile, life goes on. She and Hector have a healthy sex life, look after a rambunctious toddler, host a visit by Hector’s terrible parents, help a lovelorn friend deal with a difficult romantic encounter, and a help a new colleague of Janey’s go through a personal crisis.

And all the while, Hector, a music professor at the same university, is writing a short opera based on Patient Griselda, the character from Petrarch and Chaucer who remains true to her husband after he puts her through years of horrible tests. (The opera will be played on the harmonium of the title, by the way, which we find out later on is a “small organ.” I wonder if it’s a stretch to suggest that the heart is also a small organ, or if that’s just my need to explain a book’s title.) Janey is patient through her trials, although she isn’t passive about them, so her attraction to the Griselda story is odd. Then again, she has a habit of viewing life through books, comparing her husband at various times to Healthcliff, Rochester and J. Alfred Prufrock. Perhaps part of her problem is always looking at life always the lens of literature, an occupational hazard for an English professor and for that matter for a novelist.

Ultimately, this is a story of a happy family. But there’s much in it to be unhappy about: spiritual conflict, depression, nasty in-laws, an abortion, various career difficulties. Happiness for Janey is a deliberate choice, and one that involves a conscious effort. Happiness is not a matter of avoiding life and its trials. Pace poor deceased Anna K, Janey is indeed happy in her own way.

A-list, B-list, C-list

Mark Medley, literary editor of the National Post, agonizes over the impossibility of catching up on the classics and keeping on top of new books in his column in the Afterword today.

I can certainly sympathize. I can’t keep up with anything.

Every year I start with a fairly modest goal of reading one book per week. For 2012, as for virtually every other year since university, I’m going to fall short. The only years I’ve hit the target have been when I’ve focused on reading plays, rather than novels or works of full-length non-fiction.

I’m sure I could reach my reading goal, but I have a growing list of other obsessive targets each year. As a playwright, I try to keep reasonably current on who’s doing what on stage. Although this is nowhere near enough to keep my on top of everything, in a city that is reputed to have more theatre per capita than anywhere else in Canada, I try to average one play per month throughout the year, not counting the 12-day theatre blitz each summer at the Fringe Festival.

I could probably see more plays, but I also try to get out to literary readings, both to hear what my peers are producing and make connections in the literary world. I hope to make it to one of these per month as well.

My keeping-up-with-culture goals would all be relatively easily attainable, but I’ve got other obsessive targets too.

I have the kind of physique that, combined with a sedentary job, pale complexion and round head, can easily turn me into a Pillsbury Doughboy, so I usually run for 50-60 minutes per day, unless I bike, ski or hike instead. This was a good year for biking, since we had a dry summer and warm fall, so I was aiming to hit 2,000 km on two wheels (I missed by about 50). I try to get out on skis a dozen or so times per winter and usually aim for at least 100 km over the season. Our family holidays usually involve some kind of hiking (which means I can’t rely on beach reading to help me get back on my book-a-week schedule) and since my son reached the age of 12 he and I have done at least one backpacking trip per year, so I try to hit at least 100 km in hiking boots. Two years ago, when I began getting in shape for a long backpack on the Appalachian Trail, I added weight-training and core-strengthening to my agenda a couple of times per week.

Holidays are another occasion for list-making. Last February we backpacked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (American national parks visited, lifetime: five). In the summer we spent a week in Churchill and two in Yukon and Alaska (bear species seen in one year: three; Canadian provinces and territories visited, lifetime, 11; U.S. states: 13; Canadian national parks: 20). 

Competing with holidays, the gym, running, theatre, and readings is the guitar that I take out of storage every few years with the pledge that “This time, dammit, I’m going to keep at it until I can actually play this thing.” And of course building up any kind of musical ability takes regular practice: say, a half an hour per day.

Crap, and now I’ve started a blog, initially as a one-time expenditure of chronological resources to help promote my novel. But once you start a blog, you can’t just abandon it, so you need to update it at least weekly. There’s another couple hours per week.

And all of these goals are nothing compared to the 1,000 words a day I should be writing on my next novel or on the short stories I’ve started sending out to literary journals. (Words written for new novel: 9,217; words written for new short stories: 11,815; word shortfall based on 1,000-per-day target: 343,000).

This list-making and goal-setting is probably unhealthy. It’s an approach to life that guarantees anxiety and feelings of failure and is based on the joyless pursuit of a number, rather than appreciation of experience. There’s probably a self-help book about this. I should put it on next year’s list.

Can Leah McLaren read?

In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, columnist and novelist (!) Leah McLaren ponders the future of the upbeat novel of social progress and demonstrates an uncanny ability to miss the point.

Starting off with a mention of Jeanette Winterston’s recent memoir about growing up in a poor, devout, miserable British family, McLaren writes:
“It’s a familiar narrative – that of the resourceful protagonist who triumphs over adversity – and one that’s been around at least as long as the novel itself. Think of characters from Charles Dickens’s Pip to Mordecai Richler’s Duddy Kravitz.”
McLaren on “upbeat narratives”

What resourceful Pip is that, you wonder? Could this be the Pip who rises in class not because of his own resourcefulness but because the mysterious Magwitch has bestowed a fortune upon him?

McLaren then discusses the era of rising living standards that appears to have come to a dead stop with today’s economic stagnation and asks:
“So where does this leave our literature? How do we tell stories about the triumph of the human spirit when social mobility has stagnated, when everything is not necessarily going to get better and better and better still?”

The triumph of the human spirit? Does McLaren think that Pip’s rise to wealth and social standing in Great Expectations and Duddy Kravitz’s wheeling and dealing are stories of the “triumph of the human spirit?” Did she miss the fact that Pip’s “great expectations” lead him to turn his back on the people who love him? Did she fail to notice that Duddy’s pursuit of wealth alienates him from his beautiful Quebecoise girlfriend?

McLaren goes on to quote from an email exchange with Charles Foran, Richler’s most recent biographer, who speculates that our current malaise will lead to a “waning of the novel of social climbing, of upward mobility for the (often) kids of immigrants.” Foran notes that Richler and his peers Saul Bellow and Philip Roth wrote of the children or grandchildren of Jewish immigrants “collectively pushing their way into mainstream society, without apologies.”

“But,” McLaren writes, “if the West is no longer on the cultural ascent, does that mean people will stop craving triumphant narratives?

Triumphant narratives? Leah McLaren is under the impression that the novels of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are “triumphant narratives?”
Herzog going through his crisis of middle age and failed relationships and writing a series of increasingly cranky letters is a triumphant narrative? Swede Levov’s perfect family unravelling in the 1960s and ‘70s amid the riots and political extremism and decay of the city of Newark, that was also a triumphant narrative?

No doubt our age of debt, unemployment and anxiety will have an impact on the fiction of the next decade, but if Leah McLaren thinks fiction up to this point has been dominated by cheerleading for upward mobility she ought to give up cultural criticism and just get back to writing that sequel to The Continuity Girl.